This left analysis of the US trade union movement by Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin is the best book in years on the predicament of US unions. Every left trade unionist should buy it and read it. We are the ones who will take to heart its many insights.
Bill Fletcher is a career labor educator. He was Education Director of the AFL-CIO in the first years after the 1995 New Voice victory. He has been president of the TransAfrica Forum, and he is a frequent columnist for the Black Commentator website. His co-author Fernando Gapasin is also a labor educator, a former president of a southern California CLC, and a professor of industrial relations and Chicano studies who has taught at Penn State and UCLA.
Much of the book is taken up by the authors' account of the battles in the top union leadership in Washington DC, above all, the 1995 coming to power of the New Voice coalition led by John Sweeney and the 2005 secession of the Change to Win unions. As a top AFL-CIO staffer since 1995, Bill Fletcher certainly had a ringside seat. Fernando Gapasin's strength is a grasp of central labor council struggles and West Coast developments.
But the book's biggest contribution is its profound political analysis of the ills of the existing US union movement. Fletcher and Gapasin judge it to be in critical condition. They bluntly state their thesis in the preface:
We contend that labor renewal in the US depends on the adoption of a different theory and practice of trade unionism than has prevailed until now. Such an approach must understand the neoliberal global environment, reexamine who should be in the labor movement (and who is currently excluded), and redefine the role of the union movement in a process of social transformation. We are not interested in perpetuating illusions. The reality is that, absent an alternative, transformative trade unionism, the US will see no trade union renewal. Rebuilding the AFL-CIO or even creating a new federation will have been an exercise in futility unless we get to the roots of the problems facing organized labor.
This is the main crisis referred to in the book's title. Solidarity Divided also recounts the string of lesser crises along the way. One was the crisis of Cold War trade unionism symbolized by George Meany and Lane Kirkland. In 1991 after the Cold War's end, and especially in 1994 when Newt Gingrich's Neanderthals took over Congress, simmering discontent in the AFL-CIO Executive Council boiled over and by 1995 led to the uprising of the Sweeney "New Voice" coalition. New Voice proved to be a false dawn. They detail the successes and failures of the New Voice coalition, which went into a crisis of its own, resulting in the secession of the Change to Win coalition of unions in July 2005, taking 40 percent of the AFL-CIO with it.
Change to Win has also proven to be a false dawn. While not sparing the lash with respect to the AFL-CIO, the authors are scathing about the claims of Change to Win, whose admirers in its early days fancied the breakaway federation to be a new CIO. The authors suggest that most of CtW's policies are a 21st century update of the ideas of Samuel Gompers, "neo-Gompersism."
Fletcher and Gapasin do not fear the phrase "class struggle." The book opens with a telling anecdote about a South African trade unionist chiding a group of US trade unionists visiting Johannesburg. One of the US visitors had casually remarked that the job of a union, of course, is to represent the interests of its members. The COSATU member replied, "Comrades, it's the role of unions to represent the interests of the working class." At times they are in conflict. The authors are unafraid of the word "imperialism." Moreover, throughout their narrative, especially in the chapter "Left Behind," the co-authors, an African-American and a Filipino-American, investigate and denounce the racial and gender exclusion, blatant or subtle, that still mars the union movement and blocks class unity.
The book's sins – and there are not many – are venial sins. Their account of the historical role of the CPUSA in the US trade unions is honest and fair, though one could find details to quibble about.
The remedy they advocate is "social justice unionism." Unions should join together with other working-class organizations to fight for the broad class interests of workers. The expansion of union membership and contract negotiation should be only one element of the tasks of unions. This movement would campaign on the full spectrum of issues affecting the working class. Unions would both reach out to oppressed racial and ethnic communities and join the fight against racism and sexism as the path towards a united movement and toward a more inclusive and just society.
It is a bold vision, though not entirely new. For this reviewer, the question is: who will lead the left? What or who will organize in each union and community "for social justice trade unions." A movement for social justice unionism won't arise spontaneously. Its creation requires leadership. This reviewer would contend that the task requires a revolutionary vanguard party. Fletcher and Gapasin are not far from the same answer, the rebirth of a conscious left. They declare:
Thus one piece of our conclusion — which will be unsettling to some – is that a left, anti-capitalist analysis and a reconstituted left are essential for the renewal of labor and the reconstruction of trade unionism. Try as some may to erase the role of the left in the successful historical moments of US and even global trade unions, their effort will fail.... The movement needs the inspiration of a left vision.
There is much more to admire in this book. Perhaps reflecting an occupational frustration of labor educators whose work all too often is not properly used by unions who employ them, Fletcher and Gapasin again and again call for a wide "debate," or they complain that a debate is non-existent. True enough. But Fletcher and Gapasin have misplaced expectations. The center forces running a movement punching below its weight do not have the politics to fathom the extent of the crisis. They will not read or debate this book. Nor will an undeveloped rank and file debate it – for now. It is the left current in the trade unions that must read it. The implication of this impressive book is that the crisis of the US union movement has forced us back to the ideas of William Z. Foster and his teacher, Lenin. It's about time.